Roddick, Clijsters leave void

NEW YORK -- Weeks before the tournament began, the foundations of departures that will forever define this year's U.S. Open had begun. When Angelique Kerber destroyed Kim Clijsters 6-1, 6-1 in the fourth round at Wimbledon, Clijsters all but confirmed the following month's Olympics would be her last time as a performer at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

For his part, Andy Roddick blew kisses to the Centre Court crowd -- goodbye kisses, it seemed -- after being crushed by David Ferrer at Wimbledon. This prompted him in his postmatch interview to discuss his search for "relevant tennis," an expedition he knew was futile for his level, especially after Novak Djokovic pounded him two and one in the second round of the Olympics.

Clues of code and innuendo hardened from speculation into concrete fact, and now Roddick and Clijsters are gone for good, creating a certain wistfulness throughout the grounds. On Ashe, as Serena Williams was beating Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, the news of Roddick's retirement announcement (on his birthday, no less) buzzed through the stadium. Immediately, the exercise of putting both players in their proper context had commenced.

Nothing about Roddick can be framed without discussing the larger conversation of American men's tennis. From 1978 to 1984, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe won all seven U.S. Open titles. From the beginning of the Open era in 1968 until 2002, American men won nearly a third of all Grand Slam tournaments played. Since then, when Pete Sampras beat Andre Agassi for his 14th and final Grand Slam title, Americans have won just one, and it was Roddick's 2003 U.S. Open title here. He was the last of an unparalleled lineage that to date has no successor. Since then, he is the only American man to even reach a Grand Slam final more than once, losing three times to Roger Federer at Wimbledon and once to him at the U.S. Open. Andre Agassi also lost to Federer in the 2005 U.S. Open final.

Roddick won a Grand Slam, appeared in five finals and won five Masters 1000 titles. He was in the top 10 for eight consecutive years, yet after 2005 never ended a year better than sixth. The question of whether Roddick underachieved by not winning more Slams will follow him, but the truth is that Roddick's game did not evolve or reach the level of the players who won around him. He was, like most American players, vexed by clay, never reaching past the fourth round at Roland Garros. He owned a huge serve and forehand in a time of huge serves and forehands but never possessed the diversity and margin to be a favorite in today's age.

He did not win at the level that defines greatness, yet Roddick was the American standard. The title of next hope, as he exits, will fall on Jack Sock and Ryan Harrison and John Isner and Sam Querrey, none of whom, like Roddick, is for now in either the category of Federer and Djokovic today or McEnroe, Connors, Sampras and Agassi of yesterday.

"He was a guy I watched growing up a lot, especially when he was winning this tournament, playing really well," Sock said. "I mean, I was just coming up as a junior, so he was definitely a guy I watched and looked up to and idolized. I mean, it's definitely going to be a big loss to the tour."

For a time period that has been as dark a majors drought as Americans have had, it was Roddick who would be featured in night matches on Ashe.

For Roddick, he achieved almost everything he wanted -- almost.

"Maybe to lose the Wimbledon title potentially, but let's forget about that," Federer said of whether he felt his defeat of Roddick would deny him a better place in history. "He was in those Wimbledon finals. He could have gotten that title. That's what I said when I beat him in '09. He deserves this title as well. In my mind, he is a Wimbledon champion as well, a wonderful ambassador for the game.

"I'm thankful for everything he's done for the game, especially here for tennis in America. It's not been easy after Agassi and Sampras, Courier, Chang, Connors, McEnroe, you name it. … It's been hard for him as well at times. I thought he always did the best he could. That's all you can ask from a guy like Andy."

Injuries and time off were a burden, but Clijsters had won 22 straight matches in New York, and it was here where Clijsters solidified her championship credentials. Much has been made over the past several days of Clijsters' class and unfailingly pleasant comportment, but the greatest void she leaves is that of the champion's demeanor.

Clijsters won the U.S. Open in 2005, after losing Grand Slam finals on four previous occasions. When she finally won, she would not lose again in a final. Unlike Maria Sharapova, Clijsters did not play as though she was frightened of Serena Williams.

New York's show will continue, and the courts will always produce something spectacular, but without Clijsters and Roddick -- at a time when another show-stopper, Rafael Nadal, is on extended injury timeout -- the U.S. Open grew a little more melancholy, a little less urgent.

Without Clijsters, the women's game loses the consistent threat to win a major it desperately needs. Without Roddick, the American men's game awaits a successor.